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How to expertly futureproof your automation investment – and why you should

A Q&A with Sean Ryan, Head of Sales and Consulting at Swisslog Australia.

Automation technologies provide a range of benefits that can help retail, warehousing, logistics, e-grocery, e-commerce, FMCG and other industries futureproof operations against unexpected events.

Swisslog Head of Sales and Consulting, Sean Ryan answers some questions about automated technologies, how they can help, and what to watch out for.

How can automation be used in periods of unexpectedly high demand? (Eg the e-grocery industry during the Covid-19 pandemic)

When Covid-19 was at its worst in Australia (around March-April 2020), grocery store shelves were stripped bare, and it looked like we didn’t have enough product to keep up with increased demand. However, this was deceptive, because at any given time, roughly three months’ worth of goods exist within the supply chain – the challenge is getting it into and out of distribution centres, and into stores.

This is where high density, high throughput Automated Storage and Retrieval Systems (ASRS) could be a major help in meeting future demand spikes. These systems can store more pallets in less space, and retrieve them more efficiently, compared with manual or alternative technologies. The faster goods can be retrieved and sent to store, the faster shelves can be restocked to meet higher demands. 

Automated systems are typically more compact, delivering major savings that can be reinvested in areas that truly make a difference to business, such as service to its existing markets and research and development of new markets. A more agile, more intelligent business can move sooner to take advantage of emerging favourable trends, and more swiftly to avoid impending supply gaps, traps and flaws in evolving plans.

Finally, warehouse automation is becoming increasingly modular and flexible in design, functionality and throughput.  This enable additional robots, pick ports and even to a certain extent storage to be added to respond to unforeseen economic circumstance such as Covid-19.  This will increasingly be the case as suppliers of automation look to increasingly provide solution ‘flex’ by offering capacity via XaaS models. (XaaS is a general term for cloud service delivery models. It stands for ‘anything’ (X) as a service.)

For companies looking to invest in automation, what should they look for, to futureproof their operations?

The best automation solutions will depend to a degree on a company’s selected e-fulfilment strategy, but as with e-commerce automation in general, grocers should seek out solutions that are flexible, data-driven and robotic to ensure they won’t become obsolete as the market changes and can leverage new technologies as they emerge.

Flexible solutions are those that can scale easily and adapt to change as it occurs. Data-driven solutions deliver the intelligence to better manage product flow and have the capability to incorporate machine learning that enables them to self-optimise.

Robotic solutions are required to increase productivity and drive down fulfilment costs. The primary automation solutions being used or considered by the industry are either robot-assisted picking or goods-to-person automation systems.

Goods-to-person picking is a concept that has been widely adopted in e-commerce and multi-channel warehouses to enable higher productivity and faster order fulfilment times. Instead of pickers walking up and down warehouse aisles to pull orders, the goods-to-person system allows the picker to remain stationary, with an automated storage and retrieval system delivering the products they need to fulfil the next order as it is needed. Pick time is thus reduced significantly, and accuracy is improved, while pickers experience less fatigue and injury risk.

Does automation only benefit the major players?

This is a common misconception, borne out of the early days of automation, when only the major players could afford the ‘cutting-edge’ technology. It’s certainly true that the larger companies (like Amazon, large grocery retailers or multinational FMCG companies) extract the maximum benefit from automated technologies, because the efficiencies increase with the scale of the operation. However, with the rapid advance of technology and commensurate cost-efficiencies, automation can now benefit more compact, specialist organisations – particularly those that distribution nationwide, or export overseas.

But another word of caution for new players: don’t be tempted by a piecemeal approach. When major events like Covid impact a business, it can be tempting to invest in a short-term ‘band-aid’ fix, but the result will be that you end up with several different and likely incompatible systems that are incapable of interacting with one another.

To find out more about how Automation can help futureproof retail businesses, visit the Swisslog website.